Beirut, Asharq Al-Awsat—Despite being mooted as a presidential candidate many times, the leader of the Lebanese Forces Party Dr. Samir Geagea has, until now, never officially put himself forward as a potential head of state.
All that changed last week, when the Lebanese Forces, the second-largest Christian party in Lebanon, announced it had nominated Geagea as its candidate for the presidency when Michel Suleiman steps down in May after serving a full six-year term.
Geagea, to date the only former militia leader imprisoned for his role in Lebanon’s civil war, spoke to Asharq Al-Awsat last week shortly before the official launch of his candidacy, about his chances of success, what he hopes to achieve and his relationship with his arch-rivals Hezbollah.
Asharq Al-Awsat: Why run now?
Samir Geagea: It’s not out of greed or anything. If this were the case, I wouldn’t have entered prison not knowing when I would be released. Who would have imagined that all this would happen in Lebanon [the assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri and the March 14, 2005, Cedar Revolution that later led to Geagea’s release from prison]?
We’ve reached a point in which we need radical change now, not just Band-Aids. Of course, those Band-Aids allow us to do things like implement the Tripoli Plan, but it will not affect the overall course of things in the country, which is slowly bleeding to death. Things are in need of rescue and radical change. Otherwise, unfortunately, the Lebanese people suffer greatly.
Q: Is the kind of change you propose possible?
We could salvage everything, despite the depiction of the Lebanese state over the past 20 years as being unable to do anything, and the army as equally incapable. This includes, but is not limited to, how people talk about no one wanting to arm the military, which is why it is incapable of confronting Israel. If you take a look at the military’s weapons capabilities as it currently stands, the military is more than 50 times better armed than Hezbollah. They make false claims, but unfortunately the military does not rebuff them.
The military’s special forces [the Marine Commandos, Mountain Commandos and Strike Force] outnumber Hezbollah’s special forces two to one or more. They are talking about military weapons. I wonder what kind of weapons Hezbollah has . . . Its weapons are transported in small trucks that are used to transport vegetables and Katyusha rockets, that anyone can get their hands on. The military is able to acquire these rockets in addition to much more important artillery. As for other missiles, such as Fajr and the like, the military is able to restrict access to them. Twenty years ago to the day, the country’s image was damaged so severely that the Lebanese people asked if it was possible for us to salvage anything at all. For example, the crisis in Tripoli has been raging for three years and has left around 400 dead and 10,000 wounded and disabled.
However, when we come to investigate the situation in Tripoli they say there are international norms and regional interventions. I remember when a serious security plan was proposed, some security sources said it would cost thousands [of lives] and destroy the city. Now, with just one political decision by the government, the security plan in Tripoli has been implemented. There were no deaths and military and security forces are completing their deployment in the city. The situation required just one political decision.
Q: But that needed political cover.
True. Then why didn’t it happen before? Because there was no political leadership. The same logic could be applied to the Palestinian arms outside the Lebanese refugee camps. It just needs action. The absence of an effective political leadership and effective statesmen has led us to where we are. When there is a strong determined state, the opposition has a smaller voice, de facto.
Q: Are we not simplifying things by saying that the crisis is local in all its dimensions? The government cannot be formed without foreign consensus. Consensus was reached, the government was formed and then it implemented a security plan in Tripoli.
I don’t agree with this analysis. The government was not formed as a result of regional consensus. Relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran are still the same, as evidenced by the Saudi position regarding Iran’s participation in the Geneva II conference.
Q: What happened then?
What happened is that Hezbollah flooded Syria. Sunnis in Lebanon are drifting more and more towards fundamentalist currents. It weighed the situation and saw that it had no way out of the current situation, but again, with the help of moderate Sunnis, it went to [former prime minister Saad] Al-Hariri and voiced its demand for one-third of the seats in the government.
If Hezbollah hadn’t ceased its obstructive ways, then the Tripoli Plan could never have happened because Hezbollah was the one blocking it. When Hezbollah no longer saw the Eid family [Arab Democratic Party Chairman Ali Eid and his son, Rifaat] as useful—it blocked the implementation of the Plan.
Q: Why did Hezbollah want to obstruct the plan?
Hezbollah wants the state to remain unsettled. The more volatile the situation, the better it is for it. Hezbollah has noticed, because of its presence in the Jabal Mohsen area, that militant groups are multiplying and moderate Islamist currents are waning. This is why it accepted the security plan.
Q: Do these currents scare you as much as you say they scare Hezbollah?
Of course jihadist movements scare me; they don’t have a heart or mind. But in my estimation, fighting them means creating an effective government that controls all of Lebanon’s territory.
Note that the main reason for their existence is the existence of other extremist currents from the opposite side. For example, the Sheikh Ahmed Al-Assir’s rhetoric was based on the fact that Hezbollah was forcing the Sunnis out of Lebanon. We all agree on the characterization of jihadist movements, but we differ on how to deal with them. You cannot put weapons in the hands of one Lebanese group and prevent others from acquiring them. Talking about resistance is no longer convincing.
Q: What’s the solution?
That the state be the only actor.
Q: Hezbollah argues that their weapons protect Lebanon.
They are not the ones to make that decision. Lebanon will be an effective state that makes decisions or it will cease to exist. They cannot make decisions on our behalf. Hezbollah cannot assume that weapons are the best way to protect Lebanon. There is a clear standard all over the world: the state alone must protect its citizens. In Vietnam when the Americans withdrew, did the ‘resistance’ remain? No one can appoint himself ruler.
Q: They claim they are doing this because of the state’s failure to perform its duties.
Then why don’t they raise the issue? Is there a government in Lebanon in which Hezbollah is not represented? Why don’t they bring it up within the government?
Q: What about claims that the issue of disarmament is linked to regional issues, and that these weapons come from abroad?
What I do know is that there are weapons present among various Lebanese factions, but where they came from is another question. What concerns us is keeping weapons out of the hands of Lebanese factions. Otherwise, Lebanon will divide and crumble.
Q: What is the solution to the possession of military weapons by non-state groups?
Using Lebanese law. That’s all that needs to be understood. Of course, Tehran is also involved, but we shouldn’t stop here. Otherwise, we must go to Tehran and ask them to stop sending weapons to Lebanon, and it follows then that the Lebanese state must cut off its relationship with Iran. For this reason, officials in Lebanon must not allow these weapons nor rationalize them as being in the defense of Lebanon. If so, then what is the justification for the existence of the Lebanese state?
Q: In the past, your name was mentioned every time there was a presidential election
And I always withdrew it immediately with an announcement stating I was not a candidate.
Q: Your platform will be announced later?
Yes, it will be announced at a later stage, after about two weeks.
Q: What do you want to achieve?
We have to radically change how we address the country’s problems. I want to finish what President Suleiman started, unfortunately, in his last seven months in charge. President Suleiman waited until his last seven months. I want to start immediately, God willing.
Q: Are you convinced that you have a real chance to be president?
These are elections . . . and goodness comes from God. But I must do my duty by running, putting forth my platform and calling on the House of Representatives to elect me on this basis.
Q: Do you think now is the right time to run?
Now is the right time because the current situation is bleak. For this you need radical solutions. I do not desire the office, but now I see that the situation is no longer bearable and the bleeding continues. If the situation remains unchanged, the bleeding will continue. So what next? Do I have to wait another six years [the length of a presidential term] for any hope?
Q: On what did you base your decision to run for president?
One part of it was based on the facts, while the other part was based on trying to shake up the status quo.
Q: Before we ask about your opponents, did you consult with your allies before making the decision to run?
I’m in constant consultation with my allies. They support me in my bid for the presidency. For them the issue has become one of battle strategies and calculations. I tell them that we cannot crunch the numbers before fighting the battle. This is the mentality with which we are currently operating. I repeat: my allies hope that I become president, contrary to what some are trying to sell. This is for the simple reason that they are the first ones who will be happy if I win.
Q: We are talking specifically about the Future Movement. Are they involved in this nomination?
They will announce their position during the next two weeks. But the Future Movement is always in the thick of things.
Q: What about your adversaries? Will Hezbollah be supportive of a Samir Geagea presidency?
Hezbollah probably wants to be done with this situation, and this could be a good way out. But nothing is impossible in politics. Of course, their position may be completely different, but my impression is that it is best for them to settle for the devil they know rather than the one they don’t.
When someone is in trouble and there is no way out, he wishes subconsciously that someone else will save him. In my opinion, the environmental factors that nurture and strengthen Hezbollah are currently diminishing. Hezbollah’s car bombings have decreased and their constituents live in fear and are subjected to inspection if they want to enter their own homes. Thus, I do not imagine Hezbollah is comfortable with their situation, nor do I imagine that they are able to do anything about it. But if anyone helps them to change that reality, why stop them? We call for the establishment of a state that provides stability and security for the benefit of all. If an effective state is established, the borders of Lebanon are held fast and the nation is distanced from regional and international problems just as it was in the 60s, would it not be to the benefit of everyone, and to Hezbollah in particular?
The platform we are considering is in everyone’s interests and eliminates the abnormal situation in Lebanon which started during the civil war and has continued under different slogans until today, simply because Syria needed it for political reasons. But there is no need to continue like this. Should not Hezbollah’s youth be in college rather than at war? Should not Hezbollah be in the process of building a serious economy rather than receiving paychecks from Iran?
Q: Are you in communication with the opposition regarding the nomination?
No, because the proposals are public and not behind closed doors. The ball is in their court at this point.
Q: As President, what will you say to assuage Hezbollah’s fears?
A large part of my platform for the presidency will be to the benefit of Hezbollah over any other group, because they are the ones who have suffered in this sociopolitical climate. Hezbollah’s constituency will be the greatest beneficiaries of a stable, secure state that will allow the Lebanese economy to recover and create new opportunities for development projects. Where does Hezbollah benefit most? In the current state of constant war or in the political system I have described?
Q: What of claims that your candidacy is not serious but rather a maneuver to ward off MP Michel Aoun?
My candidacy has absolutely nothing to do with that of Aoun’s. He has been part of an effective and positive work program that attempted to improve our national situation. My candidacy is entirely serious.
Q: Does your candidacy require regional and international support in order to have a chance at success?
By my estimation, my candidacy comes within the political context of both the Arab and international political arenas. That is to say both Arab and international politics have focused on the establishment of an effective state in Lebanon for years, from the implementation of UN Security Council resolution 1559 until resolution 1701 and everything in between. My candidacy comes within this context, and nothing more. My platform fits naturally into this context.
Q: What does a Lebanon under Samir Geagea look like?
There will be an effective state. There is no room for jokes in my administration. For example, suppose I am president and some sort of kidnapping operation hits Lebanon and the entire country grinds to a halt in its efforts to hunt down the kidnappers. Whereas state officials would become fixated on the largest and smallest events, I would look to the future and work to ensure that afterwards no one would dare to threaten security. That’s an example of the quality of performance my administration would maintain.
Let me tell you about Bashir Gemayel and his 22-day rule. Before he held office, employees arrived at work at 8 am and did not leave until the end of working hours. Merely because there was a serious president, people followed this regimen. To quote the House of Poetry: “If the master of the house strikes the tambourine, the entire household will dance.” Lebanese affairs do not function on a “let your conscience be your guide” basis. Before the government made its decision a few days ago, they took into account a variety of factors, such as Roumieh prison and the problems in Tripoli.
Power demands charisma and decisiveness. For 20 years we have ruled by consensus. But if there is a thief trying to steal, do we wait for consensus in order to stop him? Never. There are laws that must be implemented. In my opinion, legitimate power is the best form of power, in Lebanon and beyond, except when wielded by those unskilled in its use. Legitimacy is powerful on its own merit. The power of one Lebanese soldier is equivalent to the power of all of Hezbollah.
Legitimate power is strongest if it is applied properly. A single legitimate soldier has power equivalent to all of Hezbollah. A president who all can agree upon is no one’s president, and he who pleases everyone pleases no one. How can every faction of the March 8 Alliance and the March 14 Alliance agree on one president? Their political agendas are mutually exclusive.
Q: Based on what you are saying, we are not heading towards a “concordant” president.
In real terms, a more concordant president will reconcile all Lebanese, or better yet the Constitution and the law. It is not possible to reach consensus except in this way.
Q: Do you think Hezbollah and its backers wish to be accepted by the state?
They did not get to this point because they benefited from it, but it is incumbent upon us to save the party from its current state in order to transform it into a political entity.
Q: How would you reassure Hezbollah’s grassroots, who have expressed fear of threats from Takfirists and others?
If the Lebanese state does not reassure them, nothing will. The only guarantee for Shi’ites, as for all denominations, is the state and its constitution and laws. Hezbollah’s military entity is a nation within a [state], and if it stays this way they will become targets.
Q: Do you feel that the nation is experiencing an identity crisis?
Christians are not a part of this crisis because they have no alternative option, and the Sunnis pulled out of the crisis. The Shi’ites similarly do not have this problem. The only issue is the presence of Hezbollah and its relationship to Iran. The Shi’ites have historically been at the core of Lebanon, woven into the fabric of Lebanese society. And they still are, except that Hezbollah’s relationships and their actions as a participant in the war in Syria cannot be explained. We announced our support for the Syrian opposition due to their humanitarian position, but the fact that Hezbollah is fighting alongside the regime indicates that they have other loyalties.
Q: Can Lebanon cope with any more violence or instability?
Unfortunately, Lebanon carries a heavy burden, and if we compare our situation to that of Jordan, we see that the latter has not had to deal with anything other than a refugee camp on its border, despite the presence of Islamic movements within the country. What opened the door to crisis in Lebanon was Hezbollah’s interference in Syria. The army must play its role on the border regarding Hezbollah and others.
Q: What do you think the future holds in regard to the Syrian crisis?
Unfortunately I see the situation for what it is: it is very complicated and, for the foreseeable future, it will remain a hit-and-run conflict with more killing, more victims and more destruction. It is a continuous war of attrition, the end of which I cannot see.
Q: On the second anniversary of the attempt on your life, do you see an end to assassinations in Lebanon?
When we have arrived at a functioning state, the assassinations will end. A state requires clarity, wisdom and a firm hand. In Lebanon, the majority wants this sort of state and Hezbollah is among them. Ultimately, the establishment of an effective state will not affect them negatively. When there is a strong and legitimate authority that treats all Lebanese as its children, we will have arrived at the cohesive state that we want Lebanon to be.
This is an abridged version of an interview originally conducted in Arabic.